As I mentioned last month, ancient Israel and the whole Hellenistic world at the time of Jesus, was a “group-oriented” culture in which people derived their identity not from an individual sense of self but from what the strongly bonded groups to which they belonged (kinship group, household, extended family) thought of them. In such a “collective” society, it was therefore the “honour and shame” code which underpinned all relationships and behaviours. Concretely it meant that every human action and interaction was an occasion for either increasing one’s value in the public eye (honour) or decreasing it (shame). A man’s honour depended on his authority over his household, his position as a husband and as a father, his strength and courage in public dealings and his status in the community. Women on the other hand were viewed as a potential source of shame and were expected to behave quietly and modestly in public, especially in their sexual conduct and not hinder the family honour. The prevalence of that honour/shame code is never articulated properly in the biblical text because it is a given but there is no doubt that it is the key to understanding the parable of The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) which has puzzled commentators so much over the centuries that they often resorted to far-fetched allegorical explanations. The most puzzling feature of the story is of course why on earth would a steward be praised – or land manager – for stealing from his boss?
Let’s first re-read the story: Jesus told his disciples:
There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer”. The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So, he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?‘ Nine hundred gallons] of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels] of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Before dealing with the details of the story itself, some historical background will help. In the agrarian subsistence-economy of first century Palestine, as much as 90 % of the people were very poor while the wealthy absentee landlords and aristocratic priests who were living a life of luxury in Jerusalem or Caesarea, constituted about 2 to 3% of the population. The remaining 7 to 8% were making a reasonable living through their association with the rich, such as our steward. We also need to remember that the Roman occupiers demanded not only high taxes in money but a heavy tribute in kind as well: olive oil, wheat, wine and other agricultural commodities. The farmers had therefore to produce more and more for their masters, even when the harvest was poor – a common occurrence – and got into higher and higher debts. The debt burden of the dispossessed was a huge social problem well documented by historians of the time and of course mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer. The steward’s position in such social order was both privileged and vulnerable: He had a relatively high standard of living, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of his master. So, when the master hears that his steward has put his hand in the till, he dismisses him.
But there are two very strange things here: First why does the master believe, on simple hearsay, the accusations brought against his presumably trusted agent without giving him a chance to explain himself? And then of course why does the steward not defend himself at all and stay silent instead? Only the importance of the honour code can give us a clue: the master’s honour is seriously compromised not only because he is losing money through his agent’s thievery but even more, because this has become common knowledge and people are gossiping! In those days, a master’s standing in the eyes of his peers was partly determined by his ability to control those under him. A master whose assets were wisely managed by a loyal agent would have been viewed highly by others. But the misdeeds of an employee would have resulted in a loss of honour for the master. The only way to recover honour, public standing and prestige was therefore to dismiss the culprit as swiftly as possible.
The steward of course knows this, and he also knows that nobody would hire a manager who had cheated and disgraced his previous employer. So instead of arguing, he stays silent. This would have astonished Jesus’ listeners as the norm in that sort of culture when you lost a position or the favour of your “patron” is to plead and plead and plead again to get it back! I have personally seen this when I was living in West Africa where “patron-client” networks are also prevalent realities. In fact, the reason why our steward stays silent is because he realises that the best way to regain his position, is to restore his master’s honour and he comes up with a VERY clever plan.
This is an extraordinarily ingenious plan for two reasons: First because, as debts always increased, never decreased, the farmers would have automatically assumed that the steward was carrying out orders from his master (remember, he does not tell the farmers that he had been fired!). So, they would have viewed their lowered bills as a sign of how generous the landowner is, more generous in fact than just about anyone else in his position would be: a real hero!!! So, although the master loses some profits, he gains back something much more precious: a measure of honour in the community. And if the master were ever tempted to denounce the steward’s action, he would lose face, again, not only because he would lose his status of benefactor-extraordinaire but also because in such a culture, taking back a gift would bring great shame.
The second reason why the steward’s plan is incredibly clever is because he reduces the debts not by an arbitrary amount but by the amount of interest that was usually charged on commodities: the riskier the commodity, the higher the interest. The interest on oil was 50 percent because it could easily be spilled or spoiled. The interest on wheat was 20 percent because it was a more stable commodity. BUT, and here is another twist, the Torah strictly prohibited charging interest, so wealthy Jews found ways to charge interest in other ways. One way was to incorporate the interest into the total amount of a debt and present it as part of the total. So, when the steward reduces the debt by the amount of the interests, he is, strictly speaking, not committing a fraud but making right what his master is doing wrong! The result is that between his honour at stake and the interest that is NOT supposed to be charged, the very clever steward has his master over a barrel!!! This is why the master praises him for being shrewd, as the text actually says, not for being dishonest!
So once again, by using the cultural context his audience knew so well, Jesus makes a familiar point: even if our land-agent is no saint and even if his motivations are entirely selfish, by reducing the farmers’ debts, he starts to dismantle the landlord’s system of oppression and exposes the corruption of his powerful master and of his entire class. What Jesus intimates is that it is only when the debts are forgiven, and the needs of the people are met that the Rule of God can be established here on earth. Our man is indeed a thieving rogue but thanks to his action, things start to change, and the grace of God is extended further, like it is extended through other Gospels rogues such as repentant tax collectors, hated good Samaritans or prostitutes!